Top 10 Deadlift Cues For Stronger Pulls (With Pictures)

When teaching the deadlift, I always instruct my athletes to have one or two cues in mind that help them execute the movement more effectively.

A more effective deadlift means a stronger and safer pull.

The main deadlift cues are:

  • Breathe & brace
  • Pull your hips down
  • Take the slack out of the barbell
  • Flex your armpits
  • Hands as hooks – arms as chains
  • Shoulder blades over barbell
  • Shins to barbell
  • Push the floor away
  • Hips through
  • Lock the hips & knees together

It’s important to recognize that you shouldn’t implement all of these deadlift cues at once.

This is because not all of them are going to apply to you based on your deadlift technique. Notwithstanding, the brain can only think about one cue at a time when lifting.

Therefore, you need to know when to use a certain cue over another and which ones are going to work the best for you.

In this article, I’ll break down each of these deadlift cues for you step-by-step. These cues will apply whether you’re deadlifting conventional or sumo.

Let’s get started.

Deadlift Cue #1: Breathe & Brace

The goal of “breathe and brace” is to stabilize your spine.

Prior to initiating the deadlift, you want to breathe deep into your belly and think about forcefully exhaling without letting out any air.

You would typically perform this cue while your hands are on the barbell and your hips are still high up in the air – prior to dropping them down into the start position.

Like this:

Deadlift Cue:  Breathe & brace
Deadlift Cue: Breathe & brace

This process will create intraabdominal pressure, which stabilizes your spine throughout the deadlift.

In fact, this technique has been shown to take hundreds of pounds of pressure off your spine while lifting.

When performing this cue, you engage your entire trunk, creating 360 degrees of tension around your stomach, which helps keep your spine stiff and in alignment under load.

When to use this cue?

  • If you have a hard time maintaining your back neutral throughout the lift
  • If your low or mid back starts to round prior to the barbell lifting from the floor
  • You lack strength off the floor from the start position

If you want to learn more, we wrote an entire article covering this topic called HOW TO BREATHE PROPERLY IN THE DEADLIFT.

Deadlift Cue #2: Pull Your Hips Down

The goal of pulling your hips down is to create tension in your lower body before starting.

When you bring your hips down to the barbell for the ‘start position’, you want to make sure that you’re accumulating tension in your glutes and hamstrings.

This can be achieved by thinking about ‘pulling your hips down’ to the barbell versus just bending your hips and knees softly into position.

As I bring my hips down to the barbell, I’m thinking about squeezing my glutes and hamstrings as hard as possible:

Deadlift cue: pull your hips down
Deadlift cue: pull your hips down

Remember, the deadlift doesn’t have an eccentric range of motion when starting. You’re literally pulling from a dead stop and your muscles don’t get the opportunity to create tension.

Therefore, you are required to actively create lower body tension in your deadlift set up. Without it, you’ll struggle to get the weight off the floor.

When to use this cue?

  • If the weight feels ‘heavy’ off the floor
  • If you have no ‘driving power’ when you initiate the pull
  • If your hips rise up before the barbell leaves the ground after you pull
  • If your knees collapse inward off the floor

Deadlift Cue #3: Take The Slack Out Of The Barbell

The goal of taking the slack out of the barbell is to make sure there’s no separation between the barbell and plates before starting.

A barbell at rest has ‘slack’.

What does this mean? The simplest way to conceptualize it is that…

There is a tiny amount of space between where the barbell sits on the floor, and where the plates sit on the bar.  

Deadlift cue:  Take the slack out of the barbell
Deadlift cue: Take the slack out of the barbell

This gap between the bar and the plates creates a lack of tension or ‘slack’ when you pull the bar.

Therefore, you want to pull this slack out prior to initiating the lift.

In order to do that, it relies on the first two deadlift cues already discussed: “breathing and bracing” and “engaging your glutes and hamstrings as you pull your hips down” into position.

After that, the most critical step is pulling your upper body “up” on the barbell.

As you do this, your back will flatten and your lats will engage. If you do this correctly, you should hear a ‘clang’ of the barbell against the plates.

The absolute best demonstration of how to pull the slack out of the barbell is by Australian coach, JP Cauchi:

When to use this cue?

  • If you find the barbell drifting away from your body after you initiate the pull
  • If your upper or mid-back starts to round throughout the bottom portion of the lift
  • If you generally feel like the weight is ‘heavy’ off the ground

If you want to learn more, we wrote an entire article covering this topic called PULLING THE SLACK OUT OF THE BARBELL.

Deadlift Cue #4: Flex Your Armpits

The goal of “flexing your armpits” is to engage your lats.

You could use other cues to accomplish this such as “tight lats” or “pull your lats down”.

However, for lifters who really struggle with creating lat tightness in the deadlift, I find “flex your armpits” to work very effectively.

When flexing your lats, it should feel like you’re trying to “break the bar in half” with your hands.

Deadlift cue: Flex your armpits
Deadlift cue: Flex your armpits

Engaging your lats prior to starting the movement helps take the slack out of the barbell as previously discussed.

However, it also has one more important role.

Having tight lats allows you to keep the barbell on your body throughout the entire movement.

If you find the barbell ‘drifting away from you’, then one of the main reasons is because you didn’t generate enough lat tightness in your deadlift set up (or you generally have weak lats).

When to use this cue?

  • If your upper back rounds as you initiate the pull off the floor
  • If you can’t keep the barbell on your shins and thighs as you drive up
  • If your shoulders are rounded at the top and you can’t achieve the ‘erect’ posture needed for full lock-out

If you want to learn more, we wrote an entire article covering HOW TO KEEP YOUR BACK STRAIGHT WHILE DEADLIFTING (CAUSES AND CORRECTIONS)

Deadlift Cue #5: Hands As Hooks – Arms As Chains

The goal of seeing your hands as hooks, and your arms as chains, is to make sure your arms are straight throughout the entire range of motion.

The reason why this is important is that any bending of the arm will create a longer range of motion. If you can keep your arms long, then the barbell travels less overall distance, which means less work.

As well, you should have no bicep contraction throughout the deadlift. If you do, you risk tearing your bicep.

This is where I find the metaphor of having your “hands as hooks” and your “arms as chains” to be helpful.

Your hands should be clamping down as strong as possible on the barbell. Think of big, industrial hooks grabbing onto the barbell.

Then, as you take the slack out of the barbell (as previously discussed), you will lengthen your arms as you pull your upper body up on the barbell.

When you think of your arms as chains, one end is attached to the hands (the hooks), the other is attached to the shoulder. The shoulder is pulling the chain up, while the hands are pulling the chain down. This keeps the chain holding tension and prevents your arms (the chain) from bending.

When to use this cue?

  • If you have a hard time keeping your arms straight in the deadlift
  • If you feel like you’re deadlifting from your upper body vs. lower body
  • If you need another cue to help with ‘pulling the slack out of the barbell”

Deadlift Cue #6: Shoulder Blades Over Barbell

The goal of keeping your shoulder blades over the barbell is to ensure you’re in the most balanced and mechanically advantageous position prior to initiating the movement.

What you’re looking for is a straight line down from the scapula to the floor. If that line intersects with the barbell, then you’ve accomplished this cue successfully.

Deadlift cue: shoulder blades over barbell
Deadlift cue: shoulder blades over barbell

Depending on your individual leverages, this may mean one person could look ‘bent over’ more compared with someone else who is more ‘upright’.

Don’t worry necessarily about the angle of your back so much as keeping that vertical line from the scapula to the barbell straight.

By doing this, you’ll feel more balanced over the mid-part of the foot. You won’t feel like the weight is pulling you forward or backward throughout the range of motion.

When to use this cue?

  • If you feel off-balance when you begin the pull
  • If you’re unaware of where your hips should be when starting the pull
  • If you lack consistency in your start position generally

If you want to learn more, we wrote an entire article covering this topic called BEST DEADLIFT BACK ANGLE FOR YOUR SIZE AND BUILD.

Deadlift Cue #7: Shins To Barbell

The goal of bringing the shins to the barbell is to reduce the distance between the load and your hip joint.

The greater the distance between the load and your hips, the harder your glutes and low-mid back need to work to complete the movement.

Deadlift cue: Shins to barbell
Deadlift cue: Shins to barbell

In addition, there are some other issues that arise if the barbell is not on your shins prior to lifting.

Lifters will find keeping their mid-back in a neutral position throughout the movement to be much harder. The combination of your mid-back rounding, and the barbell being off of your shins, will cause you to feel like you’re falling forward.

Therefore, instead of simply worrying about lifting the barbell to lock-out, you now have to work harder to find your balance. This is no easy task under a heavy load.

The cue “shins to barbell” should occur as you bring your hips down into the start position. As the hips come down, the shins meet and touch the barbell.

When to use this cue?

  • If the barbell is starting off your body
  • If you’re feeling like you’re ‘falling forward’ in the bottom-end range of motion
  • If you have a hard to keeping your lats engaged throughout the movement

Deadlift Cue #8: Push The Floor Away

The goal of “pushing the floor away” is to initiate the movement with a knee extension vs. hip extension.

This means that you want to use the muscles in your quads to get the barbell off the ground first. This will ensure your torso angle remains unchanged when the barbell is traveling from the floor to the knee.

Deadlift cue: push the floor away

Pushing the floor away will allow your hips to be patient in the start position.

You might notice that some lifters have their hips rise up quickly off the floor. You’ll know this is the case if their torso angle begins to look more ‘horizontal’ to the floor as they drive up. This type of movement pattern shifts the loading demand from the knees to the hips too early in the range of motion.

In other words, they’re using their glutes too much off the bottom, and as a result, they don’t get the benefit of using their quads to start the movement.

When to use this cue?

  • If your hips start to rise up faster than the barbell in the early stages of the movement
  • If you never feel like your quads are engaged in the deadlift
  • If you have a hard time generating speed off the floor

If you want to learn more, we wrote an entire article covering THE MUSCLES USED IN THE DEADLIFT

Deadlift Cue #9: Hips Through

The goal of cueing your “hips through” is to rapidly bring your hips to the barbell as soon as the bar travels above the knee.

The greater the distance between the load and the barbell, the harder you have to work. Therefore, as soon as you can start closing this distance, the more efficient the movement pattern will be.

Deadlift cue: Hips through
Deadlift cue: Hips through

While the previous cue of ‘pushing’ off the floor was to engage your quads, when you get to the knees, you want to switch to think of the deadlift as a “pull” to engage your glutes and back extensors.

Some lifters implement the cue “hips through” ineffectively though. They start ‘leaning back’ too much as the barbell travels over the thigh.

You never want to think about leaning back or else you risk ‘hitching’ the barbell, which is when the barbell rests on the thighs (a technical fault for competitive powerlifters).

When to use this cue?

  • As the barbell travels above the knee
  • If you struggle in the lock-out phase of the deadlift

Deadlift Cue #10: Lock The Hips & Knees Together

The goal of locking the hips and knees together at the same time is to ensure you’re balanced at the top of the lift and that you’re in the correct mechanical position.

If you lock your knees too early, you’ll feel like you’re falling forward.

If you lock your knees too late, you’ll start leaning back too much, either doing more range of motion than required or hitching the barbell.

Deadlift cue: Locking hips and knees together
Deadlift cue: Locking hips and knees together

For most people, the timing of the hips and knees locking in the deadlift should be simultaneous.

Here is a great example (the same principle applies whether pulling conventional or sumo):

If your knees are locking too early, use the cue “hips through” to generate more force with your glutes.

If your knees are locking too late, you’ll want to use the cue “snap the knees” or “flex the quads” to initiate a forceful knee extension.

When to use this cue?

  • At the final phase of your deadlift
  • If you haven’t perfected the timing of your lock-out
  • If you struggle to lock the weight out

If you want to learn more about the deadlift lockout, we wrote an entire article called 10 TIPS TO IMPROVE YOUR DEADLIFT LOCKOUT (THAT ACTUALLY WORK).

Final Thoughts

This guide covered the most common deadlift cues.

It’s important to recognize that not all of these cues will apply to your specific situation. The brain can only think about one or two things at a time.

So, what you need to do is identify which of these deadlift cues will make the most meaningful impact on your strength and technique, and then only use that single cue until the movement pattern becomes automatic.